Monday, July 17, 2017

Bear Lake to Milner Pass to Bear Lake.

If memory serves me correctly, Dan and I discussed doing the Continental Divide traverse as described in Fosters book in 2013, shortly after we met.  It sounded like a pretty big day hiking wise.  While doable with two people, it would require both to drive to Bear Lake to drop a car, then to drive to Milner Pass, then to drive back to Milner Pass to pick up the car upon completion of the hike.  And then back home, or to where ever to collapse in a heap of tired.
Of course, the years in between have sort of redefined "big day" to both of us.  As usual, over the winter when I can't get out as much, I start mapping on Caltopo.  "What if?" "How far can I really go in a day?" "Could I connect all these peaks together?"
While long, it didn't look too crazy, with mileage in the low 30's and an elevation gain of around 9000 feet.  Well, maybe that's a little crazy!
I started out from Bear Lake just after 6am.  There were a few other cars in the parking lot, and a few people getting ready for hikes.  As I thought, I encountered snow on the trail from the Dream Lake lookout up to around treeline, then a large patch above treeline below the final climb to the summit of Flattop. 
Snow on the trail, easy to navigate without traction, and able to hold full body weight.
I made the summit of Flattop in 1:30, a new pr.  I was moving well thus far, but there was still a good distance to go.  I stuck to the Tonahutu Trail as it started to drop on the west side before cutting off across Bighorn Flats. 
Going over there.  Way over there.
While the climb up Flattop is a few thousand feet, the climb from Sprague Pass up to Sprague Mountain marked the first major climb in my mind.  It's about 1000 feet of gain in a mile, and most of that is above 12000 feet.
Sprague Mountain.
North from the summit of Sprague.
I was just under three hours in and feeling good, with approximately one quarter of the mileage under my belt.  I knew there wasn't much technical terrain in front of me, with the worst being between Chief Cheley and Mount Ida, but I wouldn't be back below 12000 feet for real until nearly 2.5 miles past Mount Ida.
Longs and points south from Sprague. 
Above the Onahu basin.
Mount Eleanor comes and goes fairly quickly, with a short but avoidable scramble to reach the top.  I was the last registered ascent from last year.  Staying up on the ridge from here on brought pretty easy terrain, with a little talus hopping near the high point SE of Chief Cheley.
Another few hundred feet of gain, and I was on ranked peak 12820/Liberty Point, between Chief Cheley and Cracktop.  I stayed on top and followed the ridge to Chief Cheley Peak.  It's on talus with just a touch of scrambling to reach the summit.
And then, down.  I was still feeling good, but this mile was my slowest of the day in each direction.  I think it was a combination of the loss/gain, terrain (class 2 but rocky and a little loose), and elevation.
Mount Ida from the saddle. 
Looking down to the gorgeous Gorge Lakes basin.  Highest Lake was still largely encased in ice, with the others largely melted.
As I approached the summit of Ida, I heard some voices and called out so I wouldn't startle them.  Due to poor planning, I had run out of water on Chief Cheley.  Since these guys had come up from Milner Pass, I asked if they encountered any ambient water near where we were on that side.  I had a filter and tablets, but just needed something to filter or tablet!
They said no.  For the first time in my hiking life, I became that guy and asked if I could have some water if they had some to spare.  I hate that guy!  My main concern was not hydration, as I knew I'd have all I could drink in several miles, but nutrition.  I'd need some moisture to get those bars down.
They were able to help out with about a third of a liter.  Enough to keep me going.  To Sean and Zion, thank you so, so much.  It will never be forgotten.
Bighorn on the other side of Mount Ida.
The trail high up isn't very distinct, and I also dropped down in search of a puddle I could tap into.  I was able to find water off trail in about 20 minutes, and filled up a liter or so.  Just enough to keep me going until the more available water in the Milner Pass area.
I ran most of the downhill, passing several people going up.  It seemed like it was too late to be heading up above treeline, but the weather forecast was great, and here I was about to do the same.
Arriving at Milner Pass was a bit of a shock.  Lots of cars and people, and yes I did get asked to take a photo for a family in front of the Continental Divide sign, and did so happily. 
Selfie at the sign.
I used the restroom, disposed of empty food wrappers, stretched, and was back enroute to Bear Lake.
I encountered a family on the way back up I saw on the way down.  "Didn't we see you coming down?"
"Yes, but I'm being motivated today, though I'm regretting that now."
"Well, I'm sure you'll make it."
"Thank you," I said.  I should've told them were I was going back to!
Beauty on the Mount Ida trail.
But the beauty was deceptive.  It was super windy, enough that I was getting blown uphill off the trail at times.  While the weather looked good, I could see it was raining to the west of me, in the area of the Never Summers.  Of course, since it was so windy, the rain was blowing almost sideways and hitting me.  I put on the rain jacket.
And then came the graupel.  I got cold quickly.  I passed one of the people I saw going up when I was going down and asked if she would give me a ride back to the east side.  She said yes.  I said I was going to continue to the summit and see if it got better.  She asked if I wanted to just go back with her.
I almost said yes.  I was quite cold, and despite my plan to easily hike this side, I was now running to keep warm.  We parted ways and I continued on, finding a rock outcrop soon after which allowed me to get out of the weather and put on the tights I had with me.  I was able to warm up quickly and continue, but this marked the start of a fairly hard period.  I was pretty down on the situation and got into a bad/sad/upset/negative mood that lasted all the way to the second summit of Sprague Mountain.
Inkwell Lake melting out.
The view south from 12820.
The weather had cleared, and I was not precipitated upon again.  The wind even dropped a little.  However, my mood did not improve, and the idea of trying to move quickly did not appeal at all.  As I was finding, the downhills on the way back generally tended to be steeper and/or rockier, and therefore more of a challenge to actually run. 
A slight variance on the route on the way back had me find this bone.  No other remnants were seen in the area.  It seemed like a strange place to find a single bone, above 12400 feet.  Obviously it got there somehow.
I was thinking highly unpositive thoughts while slogging back up Sprague Mountain.  The expletives were flowing free from my mouth, and I am not normally one to use them.  My cursing became so creative I established combinations so futuristic they have never been heard by human ears before, and won't be first linked in writing for at least another 50 years.  I will refrain from publishing them here, but when you hear them in 2067, I was the originator. 
Why was I here?  What was the point?  Again, I was feeling no joy, only misery.  When I got back home, I was going to write a strongly worded letter to the management (which I suppose is myself; the letter must have been lost in the mail).
But the tides turned at last.
The second summit of Sprague Mountain, with Hayden Spire prominent.
I'd been signing into the few registers I found (Sprague, Eleanor, and 12820) with my out time, and now I added my back time to the final one.  I had about eight miles to go, and it would be pretty easy relatively speaking, with no major gain.  I ran out of water again, but I knew I could fill up at Eureka Ditch.  And I'd spend a whole mile and a half below 12k as I met the low point on Bighorn Flats.
As I climbed the Flattop Trail early in the morning, I found myself excited to run down it.  It was rocky and technical.  Of course it occurred to me it would be fun to run it back, as long as I still felt like running, that is!
I've been finding Elk parts on Bighorn Flats for a few years, and finally found the skull this time.  Sprague Mountain in the background.
Back on the trail I felt like I was flying.  I jogged much of the stretch from the time I met the Tonahutu trail up until the final climb back up Flattop.  I ate a snack as I started to head down, and then picked the pace up.  I was determined to beat my time up the peak, and set a goal of an hour to do so.
Sunlight on Longs from the Emerald Lake overlook.
I had to stop a few times to take some clothing off, as things warmed up.  And I wasn't so motivated to move quickly through the rocky parts.  But I was able to put a good effort in, and finally rejoined the Fern Lake Trail, then the Bierstadt Lake Trail.  I was almost there!
I didn't see anyone until I got back to Bear Lake, which was still teeming with tourists.  I wonder how I must look to them, wild eyed, dried salt and sweat on my face, nose red from rubbing.  Was it clear that I'd been out for the entire day?
I told myself that I needed to tell someone what I'd been up to, and decided I'd talk to a ranger when I arrived, if one were still there.  To my disappointment, they'd already left for the day and I quickly became another one of the many people at the trail head.  I was successful in the descent, logging 1:06.  It certainly could've been faster, but after this day, I was satisfied with that. 
Now I finally felt it- the elation of a long day spent in the mountains.  The original planning months ago, and the final planning the week before.  The training and getting stronger as time went on.  Encountering some tough times during the day and persevering.  The setting a difficult goal, and meeting it.  Over the day I experienced the entire range of human emotion, and it wasn't always positive, but back at the car I felt happy.
Link to hike map/GPX on Caltopo.
Bear Lake to Milner Pass to Bear Lake (distances as part of the hike):
Flattop Mountain, 12324 feet: 4.1 miles, 2874 foot gain.
Sprague Mountain, 12713 feet: 8.4 miles, 3263 foot gain.
Mount Eleanor, 12380 feet: 9.6 miles, 2930 foot gain.
12820/Liberty Point: 11.2 miles, 3370 foot gain.
Chief Cheley Peak, 12804 feet: 11.5 miles, 3354 foot gain.
Mount Ida, 12900 feet: 12 miles, 3450 foot gain.
Milner Pass, 10759 feet: 16.9 miles, 1309 foot gain.
Mount Ida: 21.9 miles, 2141 foot gain (from Milner Pass).
Chief Cheley Peak: 22.4 miles, 2045 foot gain.
12820/Liberty Point: 22.7 miles, 2061 foot gain.
Mount Eleanor: 24.3 miles, 1621 foot gain.
Sprague Mountain: 25.5 miles, 1954 foot gain.
Flattop Mountain: 29.9 miles, 1565 foot gain.
Bear Lake, 9450 feet: 34.39 miles, 1309 foot loss.
As a whole, this day covered 34.39 miles with 9503 feet of elevation gain.  It took me 13 hours, 11 minutes, and 43 seconds.  It certainly could've been faster, and it would be fun to try again.  There is some easy scrambling between 12820 and Mount Ida, but the main difficulty is the extended time above treeline.  Strenuous+.


  1. nice report andrew! i'm thinking about that route for this saturday. curious: how much of it is runnable? not much, i fear, given the bouldering. i really want to be running for at least 15 of the 30 miles. thanks for any insight, erin (erin dot tripp at colorado dot edu)

  2. Thank you for the info and milages! If you were going to go it one-way as a shuttle, which way would you suggest?